Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, by José Saramago

1993, 375 pp.

José Saramago is perhaps the world's finest living writer, and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is at once a work of deep human sympathy and humor, pathos and anger, it is philosophical and heretical, as often profound as it is irreverent, and constantly brilliant. This book changed the course of Saramago's life: his earlier works were firmly grounded in the actuality of Portugal, whether past or present. The immense controversy this book provoked drove Saramago into self-imposed exile on the Canary Islands, and turned his work from concrete human stories like The History of the Siege of Lisbon to fiercely critical allegories like Blindness and The Cave. I am interested in works of art which provoke religious furor, but I have never encountered any work of art which so effectively demolishes religious belief the way Saramago does in this novel. This book is at once the finest work of atheism and by an atheist yet produced as well as the only way to make the gospel legend remotely plausible. It is the literary equivalent of using the ontological argument to prove that the only way for God to exist is for him to necessarily not exist.

For an unrepentant cinephile, it is difficult not to see in Saramago's gospel the aesthetic of Italian neo-realism. There is constant attention to quotidian detail specifically about the lives and experiences of the rural poor. Much of the book revolves around work: the struggle to find work, how the availability of work dictates where and how people live, about the material dimensions of life. This is not the first time the congruence of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and the principles of Italian neo-realism has been articulated: Pier Paolo Pasolini made his Gospel According to St. Matthew in 1964, and one must wonder if Saramago has seen it. The film was shot in the poor Italian district of Basilicata, where forty years later the deluded anti-Semite Mel Gibson shot his Passion of the Christ. The actors were local amateurs, the budget was minuscule, and there was no screenplay. The cinematography is stark black and white. The dialogue was taken directly from the actual Gospel of Matthew, and Pasolini's Jesus bears no resemblance to the usual pretty white guy with the flowing hair. This Jesus wears his hair short, his robe is dark, and he sounds sometimes like a union agitator. In both Saramago and Pasolini's version, there is none of Gibson's loving torture-porn: the crucifixion is almost understated and resigned in its matter-of-fact abruptness. The horror is that it is inescapable, and the brutality is the implacable cruelty of God, not of the Roman soldiers. Both artists do the most destructive thing possible to the Jesus legend: they take it seriously.

Pasolini does not investigate Jesus as a three-dimensional human being with psychological depth and a personal history. His film is taken directly from the Gospel of Matthew (indeed, there was no screenplay, just the sparse dialogue from the scripture) and therefore skips quite quickly from the Massacre of the Innocents to Jesus being baptized by John. This is precisely the period which Saramago covers in the most detail and the time in which Jesus' personality would be formed. Pasolini's choice to take the Gospel literally but external to Jesus' experience leaves the audience with a rather sinister impression of Jesus. His words tend not to make sense and rather than explaining a cogent, anti-material, transcendental philosophy, he often seems arbitrary, petty, and self-centered. One thing is clear from Pasolini's film: the story without human psychology does not work. Saramago on the other hand fleshes out the missing pieces, and drops a few of the more bizarre episodes. His Gospel has fewer of the direct, familiar quotes, and quite a lot of new material, and by sacrificing literalism for humanity, he achieves a literary triumph.

When I was a child, the first thing which convinced me of atheism was how poorly the Bible was written. It is redundant, unclear on the big, establishing, expository information (Cain goes and lives in the land of Nod, which is east of Eden...when was that created? Who lives there? Was something left out?) but full of utterly insignificant detail about sandals and livestock. The endless genealogy charts and absurd ancient agricultural laws seemed to seven-year-old-me to have no place in a holy book, and quite frankly the messages are confused and conflicted at best. The word "and" shows up far too many times. Was God unaware of the semicolon? This bothered me. Worse, if the Bible was meant to have been written essentially by God (in the guise of the Holy Spirit) through various authors, why was God's prose style so bad? As a devoted childhood reader of Kipling and Stevenson and C.S. Forester, I had an eye for a rollicking adventure with good, strong, clear prose and plenty of forward momentum. There was none of that to be found in my early excursions into the Bible, and it soured me on religion for life.

Had the actual gospels been written by Jose Saramago, it is likely I would have become a Christian fundamentalist. Saramago's distinctive style has never been more commanding, nor more suited to the source material. The omnipresence of Saramago’s narrator makes his books inherently proletarian, and here gives Jesus a rugged, populist quality to accompany his depth of feeling. Saramago's prose has calloused hands and dirt under its fingernails, and it winks at you over its glass of port by the campfire on a warm summer evening while fireflies combust in the fields. He is incapable of writing a boring sentence or of creating a cardboard character, which are the two qualities the Bible most thoroughly lacks. His characters are almost always acutely conscious of their personal insignificance, and spend a lot of time in solitude, but of a combatively individual rather than indulgently solipsistic variety. Jesus is no different here: he is a lonely, troubled, poor, unimportant laborer until about page 250. He is distinguished only by his compassion and by his constant guilt.

The guilt of Jesus and Joseph is the hinge of the story, and something which is entirely overlooked in the synoptic gospels. In Saramago’s story, Joseph overhears a group of Roman soldiers receiving their orders from Herod to massacre all the infants in Bethlehem. He runs back to the cave where Mary and the newborn Jesus are hiding to protect them, but does not warn the people of Bethlehem. The guilt of the murdered children haunts him his entire life, and then haunts Jesus afterwards, until in his meetings with God it dawns on the reader that the only person responsible for the deaths of those children is God himself. And here we hit upon Saramago's real genius. Once Jesus is realized as a thinking, doubting, Socratic sort of individual, the onus of suffering passes from him onto God. Even the faithful characters are acutely aware of their God's nature, and Saramago's narrator assumes the reader is intelligent enough to realise the eternal problem of theodicy and therefore does not gloss over the role of God in the suffering depicted. "God does not forgive the sins He makes us commit," the narrator sighs. And again: "When, O Lord, will You come before mankind to acknowledge Your own mistakes?"

God does finally appear in person in a tour-de-force scene in which he dicusses with Jesus and the devil what role he has decided Jesus will play. Jesus asks God what he wants and recieves the answer "He wants a larger congregation than the one He has at present, He wants the entire world for Himself." Jesus is no fool: "But if God is Lord of the universe, how can the world belog to anyone but Him, not just since yesterday or starting tomorrow but from the beginning of time?" The problem is God's dissatisfaction with his creation, and therefore with himself. A tiny part of him says "You continue to be the god of a tiny population that occupies a minute part of this world You created with everything that's on it." He wants more and has decided Jesus must die for it. "I'm waiting," Jesus says. "For what, asked God, as if distracted. For You to tell me how much death and suffering Your victory over other gods will cause, how much death and suffering will be needed in the battles men fight in Your name and mine." God begins to list them: page upon page upon page of brutal, horrible deaths, alphabetized, in gruesome detail. Then he mentions the Crusades. Then the Inquisition, then Islam. And so on and so on, and the reader begins to hear Saramago's voice come through, like a prosecutor listing the charges. The devil, who is listening to the entire conversation, seems slightly in awe. He offers a simple, logical solution in which no one has to die and Jesus can be saved, but God refuses. "You must be God," the devil says, "to demand so much blood."

Indeed, if God emerges from this book with gallons of blood on his hands, the devil comes across as a rational, logical fellow with malice towards no one. Early on it is suggested that at the moment of cretaion, the devil created his own man and woman, but forbade them nothing, so there was no original sin and hence no other sorts of sin either. The failure of God in this sense is clear, and it becomes obvious that his dissatisfaction is with his own shortcomings, which he is determined to wash away with the blood of others. I don't believe I have ever read a less sympathetic portrayal of any character in literature. In the intellectual duel of Saramago vs. God, God never stood a chance.

Enough glowing hyperbole for one review. This is one of the finest books I have ever read, and ought to be consumed immediately and thought about in detail by believers and doubters alike. It is a literary triumph and a philosophical work of art, and cannot be recommended strongly enough.

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